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Kate Middleton's health: Probe underway into possible medical records breach amid conspiracy theories

The Princess of Wales's recovery from surgery has taken some unexpected turns.

Catherine, Princess of Wales, wearing blue with a diamond necklace
Kate Middleton has been out of the spotlight this year as she recovers from abdominal surgery. (Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)

Kate Middleton had surgery, and what's followed have been rumors, controversies and conspiracy theories. The latest: an investigation into whether Middleton's personal medical records were illegally accessed by a hospital staff member.

Much has been made about the Princess of Wales’s absence from public life in the United Kingdom as she recovers from a January abdominal surgery, according to Kensington Palace. Almost immediately there was speculation as to what she was really being treated for and a report, blasted by palace insiders, that there had been surgical complications.

The chatter was made much worse by Middleton. A botched editing job on a family photo shared to social media — in hopes of calming conspiracy theories — only fueled them. A frenzy developed over Middleton’s health, whereabouts and photo editing, which has been called Katespiracy. Folks on both sides of the pond have been asking: Where is Kate Middleton?

In recent days, there was the first real glimpse — Middleton and Prince William at a farmers' market — but even that sighting has fed into the conspiracy theories. Now there's the hospital records breach probe.

Here’s a timeline of what’s been happening, from the princess's last public appearance in December 2023 through this new sighting and the drama over her photos:

Dec. 25, 2023: It’s seemingly a typical holiday as Middleton and Prince William attend a Christmas service with their three children as well as King Charles and Queen Camilla at St. Mary Magdalene Church at Sandringham, the royal family’s country home in Norfolk, England. Middleton, in a bright blue coat, is all smiles, greeting well-wishers along the way.

Kate Middleton and Prince William with their children, from left, Charlotte, George and Louis.
Kate and William with their children, Charlotte, George and Louis at a Christmas service in Norfolk. (Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images)

Jan. 16, 2024: Middleton is admitted to the hospital for planned abdominal surgery, the palace announces a day after the fact. The surgery “was successful,” but she’ll be hospitalized for 10 to 14 days and then return home to recover. Her public duties are paused “until after Easter.”

The announcement sparks online speculation over her condition and treatment. Prince William is photographed leaving the London Clinic, where Middleton is recovering. King Charles, in the same hospital for treatment of a benign enlarged prostate, visits his daughter-in-law. (He is later diagnosed with cancer.)

Jan. 29: Middleton is discharged from the hospital after 13 days and returns home “for a period of private recuperation,” according to the palace.

Feb. 2: A palace source denies Middleton was in a coma after surgery, calling a report from Spanish news program Fiesta “total nonsense” and “totally made-up,” according to the Times of London.

Feb. 27: A palace source says Middleton "continues to be doing well" after Prince William cancels plans to attend the memorial of his godfather, citing “a personal matter.”

Prince William, behind the wheel of an automobile.
Prince William visited his wife at the London Clinic during her stay. (Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

Feb. 29: The gossip and speculation grow, leading to Middleton’s spokesperson saying in a statement, "We were very clear from the outset that the Princess of Wales was out until after Easter and Kensington Palace would only be providing updates when something was significant."

March 4: Middleton is photographed for the first time since her surgery, from a great distance, while driving with her mother, Carole Middleton. Conspiracy theories flourish after the grainy photo is published, with some even suggesting the person depicted is a body double.

March 10: For Mother’s Day in the U.K., a cheery photo of Middleton with children George, Charlotte and Louis is posted to the social media pages she shares with Prince William. The hope is that it will calm the noise around her absence from public life.

“Thank you for your kind wishes and continued support over the last two months,” the caption states. However, the photo has the opposite effect. There is speculation that the image looks digitally altered. It is pointed out her hand is blurry, her hair appears changed, and part of Charlotte’s sleeve is missing, among other things. One person believes that Middleton’s face was swapped out for a 2016 photo that appeared in Vogue. The photo feeds the frenzy with other reports saying she’s not wearing her wedding ring. The AP and other news outlets pull the handout photo from distribution, saying it appears to have been manipulated.

March 11: Middleton, clearly getting no rest time during her surgery recovery, issues a statement via the Kensington Palace X account admitting she retouched the photos. “Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing,” the statement said. “I wanted to express my apologies for any confusion the family photograph we shared yesterday caused.” PR experts declare the situation a royal mess.

Later that day, Middleton is photographed alongside Prince William in the back of a car. The palace says she was headed to a “private appointment.” There’s immediate speculation that the photo was edited or the woman seen in the car was a body double, feeding conspiracy theorists.

On the Late Show With Stephen Colbert that night, the host floats a rumor to the masses that Middleton’s absence may be related to William allegedly having an affair with the couple's friend Lady Rose Hanbury. (In 2019, the U.K. tabloids reported that Middleton and Prince William had a “falling out” with Hanbury, also known as Marchioness of Cholmondeley, and in the years since, it’s persisted as a tabloid love triangle. Middleton and Prince William never addressed the rumors of infidelity.)

March 12: The photographer who took the car photo defends his work, insisting it was not doctored.

March 16: Middleton and Prince William go to Windsor Farm Shop together, about a mile from their Windsor home. No outlets report on the outing, and no photos from it surface to social media.

Hanbury’s lawyers tell Business Insider that “the rumors are completely false” about an alleged affair.

March 18: The U.K.’s Sun is the first outlet that reports on Middleton’s farmers' market trip two days earlier. At that point, there are no photos of the outing. The outlet also claims the couple watched their kids at sporting events that morning.

Speculation grows around the fact that there are no photos of Middleton at either place. TMZ then reveals a video of Middleton and Prince William at the market. They’re smiling and appear happy together. A dressed-down Middleton appears to be moving around well postsurgery.

The conspiracy theories grow, claiming that the photos and videos of Middleton at the market aren’t really her. It's not just internet sleuths. BBC reporter Sonja McLaughlan says the woman wasn't Middleton, but a "look-alike." Even celebrities weigh in, including Andy Cohen.

Others point to a Christmas wreath and holiday lights seen in the video, suggesting the footage is old. That led Good Morning Britain host Jonathan Swain to go to the shop to debunk the rumor, documenting that the holiday decorations are still up.

Getty Images says that a photo taken by Middleton in 2023 of Queen Elizabeth II and several of her grandchildren has been manipulated. There are at least six different discrepancies, with the queen’s skirt being modified and a digital repetition of one of the children’s hair. Similar to the Mother’s Day photo, Getty places an editor’s note on the photo, stating that the image has been digitally enhanced.

March 20: The British privacy and data protection watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, says it is probing a report that at least one staff member at London Clinic, where Middleton had surgery (and the royals have long received care), tried to access her medical records.

The hospital initiates an internal investigation, according to British tabloid the Mirror, which first reports the story.

A hospital spokesperson says in a statement:

"We have systems in place to monitor management of patient information and, in the case of any breach, all appropriate investigatory, regulatory and disciplinary steps will be taken. There is no place at our hospital for those who intentionally breach the trust of any of our patients or colleagues."

Kensington Palace declines comment, calling it "a matter for the London Clinic."

Meanwhile, the March 31 Easter holiday, the palace’s estimated timetable for Middleton's scheduled return to public life, is fast approaching. There have also been unconfirmed reports that her return to public life will be later, on April 17, following her children's three-week school holiday.

Stay tuned to see if that schedule is kept and what happens next.

Update: This story was originally published on March 12, 2024 has been updated with new information.